The night before last Charles and I had screened a movie I’d been curious about since I saw a clip of it on a retrospective in the early 1970’s: End of the Trail, an extraordinary 1932 production that was probably the first period Western in American history that presented Native Americans sympathetically. (The only predecessor I can think of is The Vanishing American, a silent made at MGM in 1925 and starring Richard Dix — and based, like End of the Trail, on a story by Zane Grey — and The Vanishing American was a contemporary story rather than a period Western like End of the Trail.) The star was Tim McCoy, a Hollywood cowboy whose films had been bread-and-butter releases for MGM in the late silent era; he was working his way down the Hollywood food chain and by 1932 had settled in at Columbia, where he made a long string of “B” Westerns like Two-Fisted Law (with John Wayne in a supporting role!) and this bizarre outlier, set in the same heady time and place — the Great Plains in the 1870’s — PBS covered in their recent documentary on General George Armstrong Custer.
McCoy plays Army cavalry captain Tim Travers (it was quite common for McCoy and other Western stars to play characters with the same first name as their own), who as the movie opens is being thrown out of his regiment and the Army itself for having sold modern guns to the Arapahoe Indians that live in the area of the outpost where he’s stationed. Travers denies the charge but makes it clear, in the first of a number of surprisingly forthright (if rather didactic) speeches in Stuart Anthony’s script that make it clear just what the whites did to the Indians in settling the West, and in particular how they made treaties with the tribes and then routinely violated them, that he sympathizes with the Indians and shares their resentment that the latest treaty, which guaranteed them a reservation in the northern Dakota territory in perpetuity, has already been broken by American gold miners who are flocking to the Black Hills and crossing through the reservation while the Army is protecting the miners instead of the Indians.
His epaulets are torn off the sleeves of his uniform (a weird sort of symbolic castration reused in the 1960’s TV series Branded, which starred Chuck Connors as an officer thrown out of the Army for allegedly having shown cowardice in battle) and then the uniform jacket is taken away, and Travers leaves the post with his young son (Wally Albright) and Sergeant O’Brien (Wade Boteler), who though he hasn’t been thrown out of the Army under false pretenses accompanies Travers nonetheless. A raiding party of U.S. cavalrymen — Travers’ former colleagues — attacks him and O’Brien, and a stray bullet kills Travers’ son. (Today we’d casually and cruelly call that “collateral damage.”) With nowhere else to go, Travers and O’Brien seek sanctuary among the Arapahoes, who take them in and make Travers part of their war council. Travers pleads with them to make peace with the white man or face inundation by more white settlers than they can either fight off or live with, but the whites provoke a confrontation, the Indians storm the fort, and Travers reports to his old commanding officer, Col. John Burke (Lafe McKee) and offers himself as the only person who can talk the Indians out of annihilating the fort with their far superior numbers. Travers duly emerges from the fort carrying a white flag, the troopers cease firing and so do the Indians — and then one shot rings out from the fort, from the mortally wounded Major Jenkins (Wheeler Oakman), who it turns out was the man who had actually been selling guns to the Indians and had set up Travers for the fall.
Travers is wounded but fortunately the Indians don’t take the bait and resume the attack; instead there’s a tag scene in which the Indians agree to return to the reservation and Col. Burke announces that he will be the new Indian agent to administer the territory. End of the Trail also features an attraction between Travers and Luana (Luana Walters, who later had some far less illustrious credits like the anti-marijuana movie Assassin of Youth and the wretched 1942 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes), though even in a movie this nervy writer Anthony and director D. Ross Lederman didn’t dare an interracial romance — but that (and an annoyingly racist reference to the Indians as “half-children”) only slightly mar a remarkable film that deserves its reputation as essentially the 1932 “B” version of Dances with Wolves. (Charles pointed out a remarkably similar bit of dialogue in both films, as the white army man living with the Indians pleads with them for peace because if they attack, the whites will flood the territory with new settlers and take away what little land they have left.) According to one message board contributor on imdb.com, McCoy personally participated in the oral history project in the 1920’s in which survivors of the battle of the Little Big Horn — on the Indian side, the side that had survivors — were interviewed for the only first-hand accounts we have of it.
End of the Trail is a film that was pretty obviously influenced by those researches, and though the script gets a bit preachy at times the case it makes against the American whites for their treatment of the Native population is one that’s only become familiar since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s via the revisionist histories of people like Dee Brown, Vine DeLoria, Jr. and Howard Zinn. It’s also a quite well-made movie, far above the standards of a typical “B” Western; Lederman is a director I’ve made fun of in the past (in reference to one of his series crime “B”’s from the 1940’s I joked that you should never trust a director whose name looked like it should have “D.D.S.” after it) but he’s superb here, keeping the pace slow and the tone elegiac — and McCoy’s performance is also far ahead of the work he turned in on most of his projects. When he points out the abuses the whites in general and the Army in particular have wreaked on the Indians, his tone is anguished and breathtakingly sincere, and when he’s living among the Indians he portrays — at least as ably as Kevin Costner did 48 years later — a man really at home on neither side, burdened not only by grief at the loss of his son at the hands of his fellow whites but concern that the Indians he genuinely loves and cares about will be swamped by the white settlers and they’ll either be killed en masse (there’s a quite remarkable speech in the movie by one of the officers that actually seems to advocate genocide!) or forced to give up the only way of life they’ve known. Even McCoy’s age — he was 41, and though he was in good shape for his age the years are visible on his face — adds to the careworn demeanor he projects through most of the film.
The most baffling things about End of the Trail are how on earth Tim McCoy and his producer, Irving Briskin, got it greenlighted, and what audiences who showed up at Saturday matinees expecting a normal, generic Tim McCoy Western made of it. The print we were watching (a commercial DVD release from VCI Entertainment) was missing the original opening and end titles — instead there was a rather crude 1950’s drawing that proclaimed the film as a production of something called “Gail Pictures” (and denied us the chance to see that marvelously cheesy Statue of Liberty logo Columbia used in the early days) — but it was in excellent shape otherwise, and it was a marvelous opportunity to see a movie so obscure it isn’t listed in the American Film Institute Catalog at all (their only listing for End of the Trail in their 1931-1940 catalog is of a 1936 production, also a Columbia Western, but starring Jack Holt and having a totally different plotline from this one) and deserves to be considerably better known.